By Emma Dumain and Matt Fuller, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
PHILADELPHIA — A fiery President Barack Obama addressed House Democrats on Thursday night, making the case that, while there’s more work to do in restoring the economy, Democrats can’t be shy about what they’ve already accomplished.
His remarks, delivered in the ballroom of a Sheraton hotel on the second evening of the House Democratic retreat, were tailored to the caucus’s new strategy: focus the party’s message on growing the middle class and take full credit for the nation’s economic recovery of the past six years.
“Obviously we were all disappointed by the outcome of this election. There were a lot of reasons for it, and I’m happy to take some of the blame,” Obama told the assembled members, their families and their staffers. “One thing I’m positive about is, when we’re shy about what we care about, when we’re defensive about what we’ve accomplished, when we don’t stand up straight and proud … ”
He then began to list, his voice rising to a campaign stump speech crescendo as members rose to their feet in wild applause, accomplishments in health insurance, in immigration legislation and in “middle-class economics.”
He said he would “happily veto” Republican legislation to undo the Affordable Care Act _ not surprising, but a crowd pleaser nonetheless — along with legislation to roll back the financial regulatory overhaul bill known as Dodd-Frank and a measure targeting his executive orders on immigration.
He slammed Republicans for risking a Homeland Security Department shutdown over those executive actions: “These are the guys concerned about borders, about terrorism? Now you want to make a political point?”
And Obama crowed about proving the critics — namely, Republicans — wrong.
“It’s pretty rare when you have two visions, a vigorous debate and then you test who’s right,” Obama said. “And the record shows that we were right.”
In a nod to the middle-class economics message, Obama said Republicans now seem to acknowledge — in rhetoric, at least — the need to help the middle class and address income stratification. He made specific mention to one “former presidential candidate” on the Republican side, Mitt Romney, who “suddenly is just deeply concerned about poverty.”
While Obama poked fun at Republicans, he said Democrats “need to stand up … and not be defensive about what we believe in.”
In closing he stepped back from the podium and took a drink of water. “I’m fired up!” he said in a reference to a famous catch phrase of his 2008 presidential run.
An ensuing question-and-answer period was closed to the press, so there’s no telling what specific questions House Democrats planned to ask the president. The speech itself, however, was light on specific policy proposals, with no mention of issues like trade or a tax overhaul.
Obama, with no more elections to win and two years left to go, kept things friendly and appeared to relish his time in the spotlight: He cracked jokes about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s perfectly coiffed hair, poked fun at Caucus Vice-Chairman Joe Crowley’s imperfectly coiffed hair and wondered about the future of new DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan’s hair.
Obama said he remembered a time when he, himself, was young and attractive. “Let’s see how long that lasts,” Obama said of the 42-year-old, dark-haired Lujan. “He’ll have hair like Steve Israel,” Lujan’s silver-maned predecessor.
In the week since his State of the Union address, Democrats who have felt demoralized since the party’s midterm drubbing have said they think their president has a renewed vigor to fight with them to win back seats in 2016. They say his speech touched on the important issues they want to focus on in the next cycle and feel there is a renewed partnership.
The honeymoon could be short-lived with substantial legislative challenges on the horizon, especially when it comes to giving the White House fast-track authority to enter into trade negotiations.
But at least on Thursday night, House Democrats seemed ready to believe that they and Obama were squarely on the same team.
“I’m going to be out there making the case every single day,” he said, “and I hope you join me.”
Photo: President Obama addresses members of the House Democratic caucus on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, during a three-day policy retreat in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)